IN: Reviews

Making Patter Matter

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Chelsea Basler, Jason Budd and Megan Roth (Greta Kaemmer photo)

Faster than the fastest vibrato, and able to intone an impossible number of notes in a single bound, Theo Lebow, the felicitously facile and sweet-toned tenor with a trumpeting top, portrayed a prince the most discerning Cinderellas and audiences had hoped someday would come. He arrived last night at the Mosesian Center in Watertown. No need to wish upon a star anymore: Boston Midsummer Opera’s run of Rossini’s Cenerentola (Cinderella) continues Friday and Sunday.

John Traub’s serviceable set, with a prairie-style woodburning fireplace (why did Cinderella carry coals instead of ashes?), gilt picture frames screening the backstage orchestra, and an arrangement of steamer trunks (?), gave way to a round pouf sofa and the requisite ballroom chairs, providing sufficient, albeit occasionally vague, grounding in period and place in support of the entirely convincing vocal theatrics and director Antonio Ocampo-Guzman’s well-blocked comic high jinks.

Rafael Jaen costumed the players in a never-less-than-festive mixture of periods and styles, though Cenerentola’s rags looked a bit too glad. With limited resources Jeffrey Adelberg illumined the proceedings with some interesting psychosocial touches, especially when he used footlights to signify in apostrophe.

As some readers know, Rossini and librettist Jacopo Ferreti managed to transform Charles Perrault’s story into a new opera over 24 intense days of invention and recycling. If they discarded some familiar figures and the iconic glass slippers (possible mis-translation from fur slippers *), then they gained a new core of humanity by replacing the evil stepmother with a smarmy and greedy yet believable stepfather, and the fairy godmother with a Sarastro-like tutor, giving Rossini the opportunity to sneak some serious pathos into his nearly nonstop patter.

The catty stepsisters remain. Soprano Chelsea Basler as Clorinda projected camp diva fury as Clorinda, while mezzo Megan Roth smoldered as Tisbe. They vamped about with sufficient trashy glitter, bringing the angry coloratura across the footlights with comic menace.

Jason Budd, a beloved veteran of these productions, possesses the most highly developed comic chops of anyone onstage. His mobile girth brings belly laughs whatever he shakes, and his face is as pliable as silly putty. To these comic charms he adds a lustrous lyric polish. No mere swaggering basso-buffa, he gave a signal interpretation of Don Magnifico.

To the title role aka Angelina, Allegra De Vita brought glam of chords and figure as well as an emotional directness that stopped the show just as it began with an inviting “Una volta c’era un re.” Coloratura display and warm lyricism abided together with reassuring comfort.

Everyone showed off highly developed bel canto techniques: legato, staccato, messa di voce, delicious portamento and rubato, and all managed to vary their arias and recitatives into graceful divisions. Ryne Cherry portrayed a reliably blustering valet, and Eric Downs, the most profound bass of the three onstage, produced some incredibly long phrases and maintained a suitably dignified posture as the philosopher Alidoro .

Sometimes abetted by the principals, the six courtiers participated in fast and clean highly ornamented ensembles. If shaping seemed absent and competitive bellowing often obtained, that must have been the consequence of conductor Susan Davenny Wyner’s placement with her back to the singers. Video monitors on the auditorium’s endwall required everyone onstage to stare up high to observe her clean beat, but we wanted something more than timekeeping in the ensembles.

The responsive small orchestra (3,3,2,1,1 plus winds and percussion) gave a lively and quick account of the witty score. Davenny Wyner knew just when to underline and when to order a forced march. Do not, however, expect sumptuous orchestral bloom from small forces in a dry room. Brian Moll’s work on the tastefully amplified harpsichord showed great flexibility and sensitivity to the singers.

Allegra De Vita in the tile role (Greta Kaemmer photo)

The loyal crowd generously signaled its pleasure in the company’s 14th production.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

* My colleague Ann Davenport suggests we consider the controversy over the homonymous words verre/vair (glass/valuable fur). Perrault’s 1695 edition says: glass. But some people argue that was a typesetters error.

In 1841, Balzac has a fictional character, a furrier, argue that the original story must have been vair, but Balzac himself does not commit himself one way or the other.

An official Grand Larousse took it upon itself to “correct” the story and declared that the pantoufle (slipper) was of vair, based on realism. But a later Larousse took it back, restored verre and argued that myths, fairy tales, are not meant realistically, but thrive on fantasy elements. Anatole France defends verre as more appropriately mythical, fairy-tale-like, while Arsene Houssaye defends vair as more realistic.

The very texture and genesis of the fairy-tale mode is at stake. Must a fairy tale be realistic to be enjoyed?

6 Comments »

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6 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. “why did Cinderella carry coals instead of ashes?”

    So she could find a new castle?

    Comment by Vance Koven — July 26, 2019 at 5:41 pm

  2. Ha ha, bravo Vance — and thank you Lee Eiseman for a very evocative review. The Boston Midsummer Opera always handles visuals masterfully. I love the play of empty picture frames, implying that “goodness” eludes picturing (in our image-saturated and idolatrous culture of selfies). Love Don Magnifico’s red slippers! Which amply suffice to suggest the whole symbolism of footwear… I’m glad that you raise the question of symbols and their associations. As the lovely photograph of Allegra De Veta shows so well, we immediately and intuitively associate coal with hardship, strained muscles and servitude — because we are the grandchildren of Dickens and of the Victorian age (whereas the whole symbolism of “ashes”, mortification, renunciation of worldly vanity, has largely receded from us). Even while tending the heavy bucket of coal, her gesture is graceful, tender, rooted in heaven: the essence of goodness and of the tale…

    Comment by Ashley — July 27, 2019 at 7:33 am

  3. One must start with coal to get ashes.

    Bravi tutti!

    Comment by perry41 — July 27, 2019 at 1:55 pm

  4. I think she carried coals because when she upset her pail in alarm, ashes would have made a slippery mess on stage. But I have much too practical an eye for such a delightfully frivolous yet affecting romp, epitomized by your perfect headline! Total summertime pleasure, enough to take us out of the heat of this bad world for a few hours.

    Comment by Jerry — July 29, 2019 at 7:50 am

  5. I went and ate a special Italian dinner at Greg’s, one of my favorite restaurants nearby beforehand for this special occasion. This was my third Cenerentola (I think it the best comic opera ever written) and this was a delight and the best yet. Oh so funny and the music was great too. OK, so there was a weak note once or twice but that happens. But I was worried when no review at first appeared; part of the purpose of reviews is to tell people when there is something that really shouldn’t be missed and this was one of the year’s best. Yes, it did nearly sell out all performances but word should have gotten out earlier. Surprising that the Angelina was the woman who had been the Magpie at Glimmerglass a few years back–how she has developed! Jason Budd did not disappoint for those of us remembering his Dr. Dulcamara and other roles. A worthwhile evening to escape the heat in an intimate setting. What will they do next year?
    OK, as for the coals, picky picky. Staging this one is going to be tricky even without a budget–but that’s the magic of live theater instead of the inanities of TV and film! So use the best coal there is: Pennsylvania Bituminous from the Connellsville Seam!

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — August 11, 2019 at 9:24 pm

  6. Nathan-

    I made a point of posting this review the day after second performance, with several to go. Not fast enough?

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — August 12, 2019 at 9:10 am

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